Behavioural Science is a rapidly expanding field and everyday new research is being developed in academia, tested and implemented by practitioners in financial organisations, development agencies, government ‘nudge’ units and more. This interview is part of a series interviewing prominent people in the field. And in today's interview the answers are provided by Eldad Yechiam. Eldad is Professor of Behavioral Sciences at the Technion - Israel Institute of Technology, and holds the Harry Lebensfeld Chair in the faculty of Data and Decision Sciences. He is also the Co-Editor in Chief of the Journal of Economic Psychology (JoEP). Eldad received his Ph.D in Cognitive Psychology at the Technion in 2003. Eldad was a postdoctoral fellow in Indiana University, Bloomington. His area of work is decision making, learning, and behavioral economics. His main contributions are in the study of cognitive asymmetries that result from different incentive structures, individual differences in decision making, and cognitive enhancement.
Who or what got you into behavioural science
I initially wanted to be a lawyer but at the time it required very high grades in Israeli universities and I was not sure I’d get accepted (for various reasons I had to make this decision before doing my SAT). So I settled for Psychology as a second best. I thought it would give me leeway to either become a therapist or an experimentalist and I liked the extra freedom. And besides I’ve always been a “people watcher”.
What is the accomplishment you are proudest of as a behavioural scientist? I am proudest of my work on losses. The prevailing metaphor for thinking about the effect of losses and gains is through subjective weights. For instance, Kahneman and Tverksy’s notion of loss aversion could be imagined as a tilted scale of subjective weight which indicates greater weight to losses. My work gets away from this decision weight metaphor and involves potential attentional effects – especially, increased attention to the task producing losses. My colleague Guy Hochman and I refer to this extra bit of attention as “loss attention” and it is very different from the postulated “loss aversion”. For example, in various studies loss aversion was found to be absent in small to moderate losses, but at the same time these small losses produced considerable loss attention evident by increased physiological reaction and improved cognitive performance. I also very proud of my works on individual differences which highlight some of the decision difficulties and peculiarities evidenced by special populations.
If you weren’t a behavioural scientist, what would you be doing? Something requiring an analysis of some sort. I would say police detective but the violence might be too much. I would say medicine but I don’t like blood. So, a problem.
How do you apply behavioural science in your personal life?
I do use a variety of nudge approaches to facilitate day-to-day behaviors such as lower food consumption. For instance, I store bread only in the Freezer (requiring time for it to get heated).
Another example is avoiding sending email requests sent to multiple addressees (diffusion of responsibility...)
With all your experience, what skills would you say are needed to be a behavioural scientist? Are there any recommendations you would make? In my view, an ability to simplify a complex psychological problem into bits and pieces. An abstraction skill. Quite possibly behavioral economics is the ultimate encapsulation of this abstraction: a lot can be achieved by simply analyzing the probability and size of the outcome of a given behavior. Add the valence (gains and losses) and you are king.
How do you think behavioural economics will develop (in the next 10 years)? I think machine learning and psychology will need to get married and perhaps produce a new offspring (call her “machine psychology”?).
What advice would you give to young behavioural scientists or those looking to progress into the field? Come to conferences. Start soon. Academic family’s there. It wouldn’t seem like family in the beginning.
Which other behavioural scientists/economists would you love to read an interview by?
There are perhaps two types of behavioral scientists: Listener and talkers. Talkers often don’t listen. Listeners listen to almost anybody, even to talkers (until they get bored). You can guess which group I’m on.
What are the greatest challenges being faced by behavioural science, right now? Scientist-who-likes-Theory-A says to the other who found that Theory B is better: “There is a problem with your task.”
The other scientist says:
“There is a problem with your task.”
This continues for a while.
--The issue I’m hinting at is trying to “listen” to other findings in the field without putting in one’s personal scientific agenda in the justification process. One would have thought that with the replication crisis, strengthened statistical approaches, pre-registration, etc., it would be very difficult to get one’s agenda overcome actual findings on the way to discover something.
However, the stringent criteria we have in statistics often do not diffuse to how research questions are dealt with to begin with – namely the design of experimental tasks. This is a challenge because behavioral tasks – even the simplest one – tend to be complex and it is difficult to take into consideration all underlying confounds and understand their weight on behavior.
What is your biggest frustration with the field as it stands?
Thank you so much for taking the time to answer my questions Eldad!
As I said before, this interview is part of a larger series which can also be found here on the blog. Make sure you don't miss any of those, nor any of the upcoming interviews!